Author: Grace Shackman
WCBN's Apostle of Country Music
"Country music is real stories, about real people, about real situations," says WCBN deejay Chad Williams. "It's a refined tradition with many branches and different influences. [But] it's looked down on, especially in this town."
Williams, who calls himself "a farmer in a nonfarm town," is out to change that. As "the Funky Farmer," he co-hosts the free-form U-M station's Down Home Show, explaining and popularizing country music to his Ann Arbor listeners.
On a recent Saturday, Williams started his show with a new George Jones CD, which led to a set of hot-rod songs, which naturally segued into truck-driving songs, which then led to truck-stop songs. Williams is so familiar with country music that he can put sets like this together on the fly, rummaging through piles of his own recordings or jumping out of the broadcast chair to fetch a disc from WCBN's library. He fields phone requests with equal ease—his normally deadpan expression lighting up when someone requests a contemporary favorite like Lonesome Bob or Mike Ireland and Holler.
Williams, twenty-five, has come a long way from the uncomfortable freshman who entered the U-M in 1991. He grew up on a farm in central Ohio but was studying actuarial math so that he could earn a better living than farming offered.
"I didn't fit in at all," recalls Williams. "When I said my dad was a farmer, someone actually asked me, 'What are you, some kind of hick?' The U-M was full of rich kids. Everyone wanted to be in a fraternity and had parental support. I worked forty hours a week, mainly in dorm cafeterias, while taking a full load. Instead of trying to fit in, I hung on to my roots. That's how I carved my niche."
Dan Moray, another Down Home Show deejay, remembers Williams's first tentative calls to the station to request Johnny Cash tunes. "He was so shy he could barely tell his requests," Moray recalls. But Williams accepted Moray's invitation to come down to the station and was soon behind the microphone himself. Since 1993, "the Funky Farmer" has hosted the show every third Saturday, taking turns with Dan "the Two O'Clock Cowboy" Moray and Jim "Tex" Manheim.
Compared to his cohosts, Williams says, he plays more contemporary country in addition to a wide variety of classics. (His all-time favorites are Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Jimmie Rodgers, and Guy Clark.) Williams also hosts two other WCBN shows: Bill Monroe for Breakfast, a bluegrass show on Saturday mornings, and Free Roots, on Wednesdays, which features a wider selection of music known in the trade these days as "Americana."
Once eager to leave Ann Arbor, Williams now has mixed feelings. He will stay at least long enough to finish the twenty credit hours needed for his actuarial degree (he had to drop out several times to earn money and currently works full-time as a computer consultant at the U-M School of Social Work). In odd moments between work, school, and the radio station, he's written fifty country songs, performing them on Monday open-mike nights at the Tap Room in Ypsilanti.
As a teenager, Williams went through periods of liking other kinds of music but always came back to country. "I'm a simple guy who's been through a lot like everyone else," he says, "and country music is what I fall back on.
"I came to college to be all successful, to be full of money, but I lost my desire for it," says Williams. "College was tough. I worked all the time and learned things the hard way.
"Now I don't want to be an actuary, but to do what makes me happy. I like computers a lot and music. Those two things are the way to go."